Snowden needs more media support

BY MELWYN PINTO| IN Digital Media | 13/06/2013
There is a need for media to put it across to the administrations around the world that only a country that trusts its citizens and is receptive to constructive criticism can expect loyal and patriotic commitment in return,

The latest high profiled leaks by Edward Snowden, a former technical assistant at the CIA, of top-secret documents from the National Security Agency of the US raise several issues related to privacy of individuals on the Internet, ethical issues, and media responsibility, among others. The present leaks have already snowballed into a major embarrassment for the US government, besides bringing back memories of Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Is this going to be the next big scandal to hit the US administration?

There is one big difference, though, between the earlier two major exposés and the present one. In the case of Watergate, the major source for Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post was only known as 'Deep Throat' (ironically a major porn film those days). His identity was revealed thirty one years after the exposé and eleven years after the death of President Nixon, who had to resign after the scandal broke out. Further, the identity of the source was revealed not by the reporters or the publication but by the source Mark Felt, a former agent of the FBI, himself. In the case of Pentagon Papers also the source was not known for quite some time and definitely it was not revealed by the publications. So was the case with Bradley Manning who apparently had leaked quite a lot of classified information regarding the Iraq war to WikiLeaks. The portal never said that Manning was its source.

The case of Snowden, however, is indeed a curious one. He specifically requested both the newspapers - The Washington Post and The Guardian - that have published the leaks, to reveal his identity. His reason is quite simple: he thinks he has done 'nothing wrong'. That takes a lot of courage, especially when the leaks involve nothing less than arguably one of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world. However, what prompted Snowden more than anything else to leak these documents is that he sees a 'threat to democracy'. According to an interview given to The Guardian, (reproduced in The Hindu) he says that "The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to." The threat to democracy that he speaks of involves infringing upon the privacy of individuals and nations as a whole in the name of 'security of the state'.

There are already diverse voices raised in new media circles on the entire issue and the person in the limelight: Edward Snowden. While there are those, especially from the US government circles, who have called for his 'capture and arrest' and who have declared that they will follow him 'to the ends of the earth to bring him to justice', there are others -in majority - who believe that he needs to be 'forgiven' and given diplomatic immunity as he has done the right thing by exposing the misgivings of the State. Unfortunately, there aren't too many supportive voices for Snowden in the mainstream media, though many newspapers and a few TV channels did cover the exposé by him.

Whatever be the intentions of Snowden, he has done the duty of a well-meaning whistle-blower. In fact, he has done what, perhaps, mass media in general and journalists in particular were supposed to do, namely, to be the watchdog of democracy. Media must understand this point. When the Internet came to prominence about two decade ago, people thought at last they were free to voice their opinions and remain anonymous. 

Sadly, now it seems the Internet has turned out to be an easy medium for surveillance in the hands of intelligence agencies. It is not yet clear if the top internet companies involved in the exposé had in anyway co-operated with the said intelligence agency. However, time and again governments all over the world have put enormous pressure on social networking sites and search engines to reveal the identities of individuals and agencies that they thought had 'wronged the State', and sought crucial information, all in the name of security concerns and defamation. This once again proves the point that the Internet is not the safest of platforms to practice freedom of speech and expression. And Snowden has seen a possible danger of this greatest revolution of the modern world of communication called the Internet being subverted by a State for selfish gains to further consolidate its power and dominance over its citizens and other countries.

Media needs to campaign

It is here that mass media needs to wholeheartedly carry out a full-throated campaign for Edward Snowden and against the anti-democratic practices of countries intruding into the privacy of citizens. The issue is not merely campaigning for 'freedom and forgiveness' for Snowden (in fact, he does not need forgiveness as he admits he has done 'nothing wrong'); it is about strengthening the fundamental right of freedom of speech in democracies guaranteed by the respective country's Constitution. 

Famous media critic and scholar Robert McChesney (incidentally from the US) says it aptly in his book 'The problem of the media': "Journalism in any meaningful sense cannot survive without a viable democracy. This implies that journalism must aggressively embrace once again the old adage of "afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted." In short, to remain democratic, to continue to exist, journalism must become…unprofessional."  

Merely remaining 'objective and professional' may not help the media to be the watchdog of democracy. In fact, that can only backfire at times. It is said, for example, that during the Iraq war in 2003, the more people followed the media in the US, the less they knew about what actually was going on in Iraq. In their pursuit for 'objectivity and professionalism', media had faithfully doled out a one-sided story of the war obtained through embedded journalism. Fortunately, at least a section of media learnt a lesson and began soul-searching.

Similar soul-searching must happen at this crucial juncture as well. Media needs to play a pro-active role and not find an escapist root in being merely 'objective and professional'. There is a need for media, through its vigorous campaign, to put it across to the administrations around the world that only a country that trusts its citizens and is receptive to constructive criticism can expect loyal and patriotic commitment in return from them; not otherwise.
Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More